Biblical Archaeology in 2013

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Excerpt The Meetings of the American Schools of Oriental Research, or ASOR, took place in the city of Baltimore, MD this past November. For those unfamiliar with this organization, it is comprised of archaeologists and scholars who make the “lands of the Bible” the focus of their research and investigations. Continue reading

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Over many years this has greatly expanded to include subjects relating not only to Israel and the Palestinian territories, but also Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Iran, Iraq (Mesopotamia), Egypt and Cyprus. Moreover, the time periods concerned have also expanded far beyond the strictly biblical periods of the Bronze Age, Iron Age, and the Roman Empire of the first century AD. They include prehistoric periods such as the Chalcolithic and Neolithic as well as the Byzantine, Islamic, right down to the modern Middle East. Not surprisingly, the subject matter of this research has multiplied to topics completely unrelated to the study of the Bible.

In all this proliferation of research, those concerned with classical biblical archaeology might lose heart. But the fact is that the Bible remains central to much of this work, even if it is not explicit stated. Over 420 papers were delivered in November as part of 62 separate academic sessions. A review of the sessions reveals a keen interest in the Bible, with such themes as Archaeology of Israel, Archaeology of Jordan, Mari and the Bible, Twenty Years of Digging at Megiddo, The World of the Philistines, Archaeology and Biblical Studies, and Myth, History and Archaeology.   

Israelite religion has always been a popular subject for study. This past year, several papers examined various aspects of ancient “cultic” practices. Cristiana Conti of York University (Canada) gave a presentation entitled “Asherah: The Goddess of the Wilderness” in which she attributes references to the bronze serpent in Num. 21 and 2 Kings 18 to the Canaanite background of the Israelites. In the former case, the serpent possesses healing qualities whereas in the second it is broken into pieces by a young King Hezekiah. She asserts that the significance of the coexistence of Asherah alongside the bronze serpent in the temple has been overlooked by scholars. Conti further cites epigraphic and iconographic evidence for their linkage in Ancient Near Eastern mythology. They were coveted for their healing and protective powers. But whereas the text condemns Israelite adoption of such practices as foreign idolatry, Conti explains it as a natural outgrowth of the Israelites as erstwhile Canaanites, implying that they “emerged” from Canaanites themselves, a clear rejection of the biblical account of their identity as Israel and its origins outside of Canaan.

Two sessions bearing the title The World of the Philistines dealt mainly with discoveries from the site of Tell es-Safi/Gath. Louise Hitchcock of the University of Melbourne discussed the derogatory meaning of “Philistine” in the English language, being akin to the Greeks references to barbarians in classical times. In her paper, “Who Are You Calling a Philistine?” she argues that the Philistines were a culturally mixed group, a result of multiple groups that migrated into and settled amongst the local Canaanite population. From this union emerged a socially and economically advanced and technologically sophisticated culture that manufactured iron and decorated Mycenaean-style pottery. Viewed in this light, the Philistines were not at all the uncultured brutes they have come to be portrayed as in modern times.

Brian Janeway (University of Toronto) summarized his analysis of Mycenaean-style pottery in a talk entitled “Cultural Transition as Reflected in the Aegean-Style Pottery at Tell Tayinat.” Several Hieroglyphic Luwian inscriptions now attest to the existence of a Kingdom of Palastin, whose capital was located at Tayinat in the Amuq Valley of modern Turkey. The archaeological evidence of this migrational group of consists of a clearly Aegean-type pottery assemblage characterized by shapes and painted motifs that are quite unlike the pot making traditions indigenous to the area. They appear to have settled amongst a local population in the 12th century at scores of sites throughout the valley. As these excavations are ongoing, the origins of this group and their relationship to the Philistines in the southern Levant are as yet unclear.

The covenant renewal ceremony described in Joshua 8:30–35 forms the backdrop of a paper delivered by Ralph Hawkins of Averett University on the “Iron Age I Structure on Mt. Ebal.” The discovery of an enigmatic structure on the slope of Mt. Ebal during an area survey of Manasseh has been somewhat controversial. Hawkins summarizes all the data and theories pertaining to the site, including the cultic interpretation favored by its excavator Adam Zertal, one which links to the altar depicted in Joshua. It is here in the biblical narrative that Joshua performs sacrifices and writes the Law of Moses on stones, and reads the words of the law to the assembled people. This ancient structure has been dated to the Early Iron Age and has inspired a number of different interpretations, including a watchtower, a barbecue site, a farmstead, and a center of commerce in addition to the cultic altar, which thus far commands the most support. The suggestion that the altar is one and the same as that in Joshua is intriguing to be sure. However, the late dating of the Ebal structure disqualifies it as Joshua’s, since the latter would belong to the Late Bronze Age, c. 1400 BC.

Questions surrounding the historicity and nature of the kingdom of David have long generated contentious debate, with so-called Minimalists denying his very existence. That he was a historical figure has now been firmly established by the discovery of the Tell Dan Stela, but the size and significance of his administration is still disputed. Compelling evidence for a strong centralized state has recently been unearthed at the site of Khirbet Qeiyafa, located in the Elah Valley in the Shephela (foothills west of Jerusalem) of Israel. Here a well built single-period fortress has been excavated, which dates to the 10th century BC—contemporary to the period of the United Kingdom of Israel. Kyle Keimer of Macquarie University (Australia) presented evidence from the stone quarry at the site, which indicates a sophisticated multi-stage process of industrial activity that would have required a high level of organization to conduct. As both the quarry and the fortress are securely dated to the Iron IIa period, the most logical conclusion is that it belonged to the reign of King David himself.

A session entitled Mari and the Bible at 80 explored the long history of comparative studies that had earlier linked the customs and politics of the Amorite Dynasty of Hammurabi to the Patriarchal narratives. The vast archive now numbering over 14,000 texts has provided generations of scholars with a rich collection of early records dating to the Middle Bronze Age in northeast Syria. Adam Miglio (Wheaton College) compared aspects of the political history of Mari, particularly those pertaining to Ibal-Addu, the king of Alalakh, to events described in 2 Samuel relating to the turbulent relationship between King David and his son Absalom. It seems that certain political refugees and pretendants to the throne might find patronage and protection in adjacent kingdoms. Such seems to have been the case during the reign of Zimri-Lim in Mari, as it was with Absalom’s flight to the kingdom of Geshur after he murdered Amnon, David’s firstborn son (2 Sam. 13:29). Scholarship like this helps us to better understand the customs and ways of the Israelites by seeing them in their Ancient Near Eastern context.

Excavations at the Philistine sites of Tell es-Safi/Gath and Tell Miqne/Ekron have produced architectural evidence of a standard “Philistine cubit” measuring 38 x 54 cm. This standard sized mudbrick seems to have been predominant throughout the Iron I and II periods. And since the same size bricks were used in the Judahite strata at Safi, Jeffrey Chadwick (Brigham Young University) suggests that the Philistine-standard mudbricks may have been used throughout the region in the Iron Age.

A session on Archaeology and Biblical Studies produced several interesting papers. Richard Hess of Denver Seminary has long specialized in the study of onomastics (proper names) as they appear in the Bible and texts from the Ancient Near East. This paper, “Personal Names in the Hebrew Bible with Second Millennium BCE Antecedents,” found that non-Israelite names in the Book of Joshua thought to date no later than the second millennium have now been found in first millennium sources. However, several other names are shown to be widespread in the earlier period but later fall out of use. He uses recent publications of Hurrian and Anatolian texts to date the earliest sources behind the biblical text and to illustrate the strong north Syrian cultural influence in the southern Levant during the Early Iron Age.

Mitka Golub (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) used a collection of 800 personal names found at 66 sites, grouping them according to theophoric elements, and mapping them to track historical ethnic trends across the region. Her research shows the predominance of the ‘l (god) element in names found in Ammonite territory and, not surprisingly, the prevalence of yhw, yw, and yh (Yahweh) in Israelite names, a trend which strengthened over time into the Iron II period.

“A Stratified Account of Israel’s Battles in Judges 11 (Jephthah)” by Elizabeth Bloch-Smith (St. Joseph’s University) presented a highly critical interpretation of chapter 11 in the Book of Judges. She finds the “confused justifications for war” as evidence for the composite nature of the account, which she believes was based on varying historical contexts, which were assembled together after 734 BC in the Kingdom of Judah. These diverse accounts were weaved together to give the narrative, in her words “legitimacy and emotional resonance.” However, this theory disregards clearly chronological statements found in Judges 11:26, which asserts Israelite presence in the cities of Heshbon, Aroer, and the banks of the Arnon for the previous three hundred years, as well as the well-known claim by the Moabite King Mesha (cf. 2 Kings 3:4) that the “the men of Gad dwelled in the land of Ataroth from ancient times” found in the Mesha Stela (9th century BC).

Related to these questions are Andrews University’s excavations at the site of Tell Jalul, directed by Randall Younker, which have produced evidence suggesting the site was biblical Bezer (Deut. 4:43; Joshua 20:8). Early Iron Age finds show a close link to groups in the Cisjordan (west of the Jordan River), which supports the Mesha inscription’s claim that the people in this region were Gadites “from ancient times.” But this erstwhile “Cisjordanian” culture was displaced at the end of the 9th century by one similar to Moabite areas to the south. This would seem to support Mesha’s claim to have conquered this area north of the modern Wadi Mujib (biblical River Arnon), in which he states that “I have built Bezer, for it lay in ruins.”

ABR supporters and readers of Bible and Spade would have been disappointed by a presentation given by Gerald Mattingly of Johnson University. His paper dealt with Joseph Calloway’s expedition to et-Tell, which secular scholars take to be biblical Ai. Calloway, who taught at Southern Baptist Seminary, entered into archaeological fieldwork late in life, and without extensive excavation experience. Therefore he sought out experts in the field such as Kathleen Kenyon and G. Ernst Wright. However, in the process of acquiring more sophisticated techniques like the Wheeler-Kenyon method in his fieldwork, his high view of the conquest accounts of Joshua was gradually undermined to the point that he anguished over ever finding an answer to the question of Ai that would leave the historicity of the text intact. Taking et-Tell as the only possible location for the Ai of Joshua, he finally concluded that it could not be taken as historically accurate. Unfortunately, he seems not to have considered the possibility that et-Tell was not the Ai of Joshua at all. For his sake, Mattingly presented a balanced review of the controversy over Ai without actually weighing in on the archaeological debate itself.

There were many more presentations relating to biblical matters, which space prohibits me from mentioning here. Despite the fact that ASOR is a secular guild of professional archaeologists, its Annual Meetings clearly show that the Bible continues to exert a strong influence on both the locations selected for excavation and the subjects scholars choose for analysis. It continues to be intimately concerned with the correlation of text and artifact. A primary tenet of the mission of The Associates for Biblical Research is to make informed commentary and interpretation of current excavations and discoveries as they relate to the Scriptures, and the 2013 meetings provided a rich source of new material from which readers can learn and be edified.

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1/20/2014 4:57 PM #

Great report about all the stuff I missed at ASOR this year. You pointed out some very interesting topics for Biblical archaeological studies. Sorry I missed your presentation, too. We need you to get those Philistine connections straightened out!

Gary Byers - 1/20/2014 4:57:05 PM

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